Whether you call them hybrids or smart phones, wireless handhelds that combine voice calls and data services are a hotbed of innovation. With improved e-mail, Web browsing, and games, they're also starting to win over consumers. The devices are still far from perfect, but they are becoming an attractive way to stay connected while you're on the go.
I tried two new and very different handhelds, the Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) iPAQ h6315 and the Danger Sidekick II, both running on the T-Mobile (DT) network, along with a new version of an old favorite, the palmOne (PLMO) Treo 600, on Verizon Wireless.
The main distinction of the iPAQ ($499 with activation) is that it uses both Wi-Fi networking and the slower but more widely available T-Mobile wireless phone network for data. You buy a monthly plan starting at $80 covering voice, data, and access to T-Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. The iPAQ then uses fast Wi-Fi networks wherever available, and otherwise switches seamlessly to the phone-based network. Once I entered the required information for the networks I wanted access to, I could fetch mail or Web pages using Wi-Fi in the office or at home, and the T-Mobile network while on the go. It's simple to set the iPAQ up to use any standard Internet accounts. For corporate e-mail, you may need help from tech support.
THE iPAQ'S MAIN E-MAIL SHORTCOMING is the lack of a keyboard. You can add a mini-keyboard that fits over the lower part of the unit, but the Pocket PC software is not optimized for keyboard use, and you'll find yourself needing three hands -- two to type and one for the stylus. Otherwise, you enter text using either character recognition or a tiny on-screen keyboard. The iPAQ also comes up short as an everyday voice phone: Because you have to dial by tapping the screen, and because the device is nearly three inches wide, it's almost impossible to operate with one hand.
The businesslike iPAQ is likely to prove most popular among corporations, many of which have developed custom Pocket PC applications. In contrast, the Sidekick ($299 with activation) just wants to have fun. It rewards users with easy over-the-air downloads of games and other amusements, a decent built-in camera, and software that can pop up a picture of the caller when the phone rings.
The Sidekick's key selling point is a trick this model shares with the original, somewhat clunkier model: Push the upper-right corner of the display, and the whole panel pivots open to reveal a 3 1/4-inch-wide keyboard -- huge by handheld standards. The Sidekick comes with a T-Mobile e-mail account, and it is simple to add standard Internet mail accounts. The device is designed to be held so the display is wider than it is high. This, combined with a service that automatically reformats Web pages for the small display, makes it a much better browser than most other handhelds.
The Sidekick, however, makes an awkward phone. Unless you can select a number by scrolling through contacts, you'll have to open the display to dial a call. I suggest using the Sidekick with a headset or as a speakerphone. Data service costs $20 a month above any T-Mobile voice plan, or $29 a month for data only.
The latest Treo 600 ($450 with activation) has no major new features, but it comes from Verizon Wireless, whose subscribers have been waiting a year for the carrier to offer the popular phone. Voice and data services were excellent, but the Wireless Sync software for relaying corporate e-mail to the Treo required a difficult setup. Unlimited data service costs $50 a month above a voice plan.
In past columns, I have noted that the Treo 600 offers most buyers the best combination of features and size, and that's still the case. But the competition is getting better. Witness the iPAQ's multi-network abilities, which ought to become a standard feature on all these wireless handhelds.
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By Stephen H. Wildstrom